10 Books to Improve Practice, Part II
A Better Approach to Practice
By NAfME Member Kyle Oberhauser
A quick review from Part I, “Why Practice Works,” will show the importance of building myelin around neurons to improve the efficiency of a specific task. Below is a short excerpt from Geoffrey Colvin’s book Talent Is Overrated, that summarizes the importance of the amount of practice necessary to build myelin for musicians, or anyone looking to improve performance (2019).
Particularly important in such changes seems to be the buildup of a substance called myelin around nerve fibers and neurons, which work better with more myelin around them . . . This process of building up myelin by sending signals through nerve fibers, which occurs in purely intellectual fields like business as well as in sports and music, needs to happen millions of times in the development of a great performer (p. 103-104).
The previous article explores negative practice, a term from Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery. To avoid negative practice, we will utilize a type of practice called deliberate practice (Kish, 2017). It is a combination of deliberate practice techniques over a long period of time that equals expert level performance. This article will define deliberate practice, discuss an effective organized approach to practice, and address how to apply and share these techniques in the classroom.
Deliberate practice was defined many different ways in the ten books read for this two-part series, but Geoffrey Colvin puts it best in Talent Is Overrated.
Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun (p. 66).
Deliberate practice is the process of intelligently designing a practice session in a way that consistently achieves goals through feedback, chunking, and working at very slow speeds (Colvin, 2019). This process allows the best chance to build new, proper, neural connections and then finally, strengthen these new connections with repetition. Participation in deliberate practice must be intentional, with undivided focus. Over time, a fifteen-minute session that beginners might struggle with, soon becomes the four to five hours of deliberate practice per day for advanced performers.
Psychologist Anders Ericsson estimates the amount of regularly scheduled deliberate practice required to become a master practitioner in any field is around ten thousand hours, or ten years (Ericsson, Krampe, Tesch-Romer, 1993). This estimation comes from his famous 1993 study of three groups of violinists. In this study, the relationship between proficiency on the instrument and amount of deliberate practice performed was compared. Ericsson is not the first to discover this number, as he references a “10-year rule” discovered by psychologist John Hayes in 1989, as well as a chess study by Simon and Chase from 1973 which concluded a requirement of ten to seventeen years of “intense practice” to become a chess grandmaster. Regardless of the time frame, a vast amount of focused time, effort, and dedication is required to create a significant achievement in a given area of study.
Approaching deliberate practice with small, specific, and achievable goals is the best way to ensure that progress is made during each practice session. These goals should be set or monitored by a teacher to ensure they are in line with current abilities and are building toward a long-term goal (Hall, 2020). Teachers often emphasize assigning a time limit to a practice session for their students, instead of a goal. Since deliberate practice is goal oriented, a time limit is not necessary. The difficulty of these goals is a major factor in getting the most out of a practice session. David Kish describes this balance in Practicing with Purpose (2017): “You need to be challenged in order to grow, but challenged in ways that are attainable” (p. 7).
As described in The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen (2016), setting goals that are too high is part of our human nature and the cause of the constant rapid advancement of our world. Our goal setting abilities are highly evolved to always want more in less time, but our goal enactment abilities have not changed much since our primitive ancestors. Distractions from technology and the surrounding environment are constantly battling for attention, and our primitive reaction to these distractions is to actually give in to them. Our primitive brain wants to absorb all the information it can get to improve chances of survival which is a real problem when trying to focus on a single task. Studies show humans have become very efficient with rapidly switching tasks, but this is detrimental to the singular focus needed for practice. Rapid task switching increases stress levels when learning and also drastically increases the amount of time required to understand the material. The intensity of deliberate practice is hard enough, so having a quiet space to limit distractions, taking frequent breaks, and evaluating and revising practice goals frequently will keep progress moving forward.
In Practicing with Purpose, David Kish presents one of his favorite examples of why the approach to practice is so important (2017). Picture a sled about to go down a snowy hill of fresh powder. The very first pass of your sled will set a very distinct and visible path down the hill. The subsequent passes will have a tendency to follow in that path and have trouble forming a new one. This shows the importance of working on a new skill for the first time perfectly and maintaining this level throughout practice. With more passes down the correct path, more myelin is built on those specific connections, making the task easier to perform correctly, and harder to perform incorrectly. Students who are anxious to play a new piece can make a mess out of a first attempt without proper teacher guidance. Students will fail to check the time signature, key signature, or tempo and, without them even knowing it, extend the time to reach their goal.
During the approach to learning a new skill, how can one be sure to create the correct neural pathways during the first attempt? With the use of chunking, slow practice speeds, and immediate feedback, the chance of participating in any negative practice is minimalized early on. Chunking is when the task at hand is broken down into its basic component parts. Each of these parts are then rehearsed and mastered before working back toward the full task, piece by piece (Coyle, 2009). This process allows for success early on, and more freedom to focus on tone, dynamics, and articulations.
Slow deliberate practice doubles down on avoiding mistakes and keeps the success rate high. With more time between notes, the precision and accuracy of practice is higher, creating the most efficient neural connections for the task. Use a metronome to find a tempo that allows this level of precision from the very beginning and only increase by two or three beats per minute, after each tempo is mastered. Kenny Werner describes his slow practice in Effortless Mastery as a state of meditation (1996). He practices piano so slowly that he feels his fingers are teaching themselves to perform, while he monitors their progress. Even the most difficult pieces of music can be broken down or practiced slowly enough to achieve immediate success early on.
Avoiding mistakes and unwanted neural connections is what deliberate practice aims to avoid, but what happens when rehearsal tempos are too fast for perfection? This is where the feedback loop as described in Perfect Practice becomes put into place (Lemov, Yezzi, Woolway, 2012). It is a loop of practicing, providing immediate feedback, applying the feedback, putting in repetitions, and reflecting. Feedback can come from a teacher or yourself and is the only way to monitor deliberate practice and keep progress moving forward. Studies find that top level performers are constantly using this self-regulatory feedback loop in their practice to hold themselves to high standards. Apply the feedback loop often and quickly so it becomes a regular part of practice.
After a difficult chunk of practice has been slowed down, rehearsed, critiqued, and rehearsed again, the connection must be strengthened through repetition. The use of repetition in practice is irreplaceable (Coyle, 2009). There is no substitute for focused, constant firing of neurons during repetitions, to solidify new connections. Every repetition challenges the neurons through fatigue to build more layers of myelin and become more efficient for the next repetition, and so on. Kenny Werner believes all practiced material needs to become comfortable for the musician and played without thought, before moving onto a new goal (Werner, 1996). Kenny states, “I practice thoroughly and patiently until the material plays itself . . . When the material is properly digested, it comes out in an organic way and manifests as my voice” (p. 117). Do not move on before mastery, or time and effort will be wasted.
Teachers are always telling students to practice more, but assign exercises and pieces to improve before the next rehearsal without much guidance. Often students do not know how to organize practice, or describe what they’ve practiced. Teachers should include more practice techniques and strategies in weekly lessons, or even better, become a fly on the wall in a student-led practice session. Here, feedback can be given right away while adjustments are modeled throughout. Teachers should lean toward assigning a small goal, not a time limit for practice sessions. This way the expectation is clear, and the focus is not on running out the clock.
A popular practice technique that can be used in the classroom for quick repetitions is the “3 times perfectly” rule. Studies show that repeating phrases and exercises three times perfectly before allowing students to move on will provide better retention (Kish, 2017). Obviously, this is not enough to truly master anything, but if three repetitions show improvement, this will motivate students to put more effort and focus into their next practice session. Most students have not experienced the intense focus required for deliberate practice, so it must be modeled by the teacher. When rehearsing a difficult section of music with students, model how they should be chunking, utilizing slow tempos, giving self-feedback, and reevaluating their practice plan. Describe the thought process behind each step out loud so the students know what to be looking for in their own practice.
Colvin, G. (2019). Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everyone Else. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Coyle, D. (2009). The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s grown. Random House Business.
Ericsson, A., Krampe, R., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. American Psychological Foundation, 100(3), 363–406.
Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. MIT Press.
Gladwell, M. (2010). Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company.
Hall, R. L. (2020). Purpose in Practice: 26 Rules for the Practicing Musician. CrossRhythm Press.
Kaufman, J. (2014). The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast. Portfolio/Penguin.
Kish, D. (2017). Practicing with purpose: An Indispensable Resource to Increase Musical Proficiency. Meredith Music Publications.
Lemov, D., Yezzi, K., & Woolway, E. (2012). Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better. Jossey-Bass.
Sousa, D. A. (2017). How the Brain Learns. CORWIN a Sage Publishing Company.
Werner, K. (1996). Effortless Mastery. Jamey Aebersold Jazz.
About the author:
NAfME member Kyle Oberhauser is an instrumental music educator in New Jersey where he teaches string orchestra, concert band, and jazz band at beginning, elementary, and middle school levels. Kyle also directs a music club where students explore singing and songwriting techniques on ukulele and guitar. As a multi-instrumentalist, Kyle has performed professionally on woodwinds, brass, strings, keys, guitar, bass, percussion, and drums. He instills his passion for practice and holds high standards for proper practice techniques in all of his students. Kyle attended The University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Jazz Studies with a focus on drumset performance, as well as a Master of Arts Degree in Music Education. He continues to develop his music education in all areas from brass, woodwind, and string studies to music technology, instrument repair, and songwriting.
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December 14, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)